Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Alberta Must Fix its Own Fiscal House Now & Not Pass the Problems on to Future Generations.

Alberta's Fiscal Challenges!
I am confused by the fiscal messaging coming out of Alberta these days. Albertans are into some tough times and more to come from what we are being told. With chronic low natural gas prices and other adjustment in our budget assumptions we can’t expect to rely on resource revenues to sustain our program spending.

There are some other realities that have put us in an operating accounts deficit position. However, let’s be clear Alberta has billions stashed away in various accounts – other than the Heritage Fund. We are borrowing the short fall instead of using the cash reserves. I think that is a good idea given the extremely low interests rate these days.

We are told we have almost a $1B of deficit from last year, then $4.7B in this year and now ballooning to $6.2 B. We can expect an even larger deficit next year even after we cut $2B of spending and Health Minister Liepert is reported to say he doesn’t think you can make that kind of cut in the system in one year in a recession. Recently we have been told by Minister Liepert that our leaner more efficient new health care system will tack on another $1B of deficit this fiscal. That is ironically the same amount as health care premiums used to generate before we scraped them.

What Can Be Done?

Go To Ottawa for More Money!
Part of the deficit “solution” being considered by the Alberta government is to go to Ottawa for more money to help out cash strapped Alberta, particularly for health care. Ottawa has rightly told Alberta we must be a “have-not province” before that would happen. Alberta is far from being a “have-not” province so we will have to find our own solutions to the health care budget shortfall.

Since Harper is now known to be low-balling his own budget deficit estimates according to the Parliamentary Budget Office who predict a structural deficit will prevail until at least 2014 the likelihood of Canada bailing out Alberta are between slim and nil.

Lots of Room to Raise Taxes & Still be Competative!
Alberta’s taxes are also extremely low compared to the rest of the country. Perhaps our taxes are too low especially if we can’t sustain our quality of living and public services as a result. Minister Evans noted in a Calgary Herald Opinion Piece in May 2009 that “…if Alberta had the same tax system as other provinces, Albertans and Alberta businesses would pay between $10B and $18B more in taxes every single year….”

Ted Morton is recently quoted in the Calgary Sun saying Alberta will have to cut spending and raise taxes. “The shortfall is so big. We can’t keep loading debt on the next generation. That is not what conservatives do” according to Minister Morton.

Why Not Charge and Collect Responsible Royalty Rates?
Well let’s talk a bit more about intergenerational fairness and the fiscal realities of Alberta today. What if we actually collected the royalties owed by the energy sector and stopped the high subsidy rates. The Auditor General estimates the Alberta government leaves about $2B per year on the table from uncollected royalties in the conventional oil and gas sector every year from 2006. In addition we subsidize natural gas drilling between $1.5B to $3B in foregone royalties. We are doing this at a time when commodity prices and supply gluts tell us it is folly to drill for more gas because all more supply will do is ensure prices stay low and Alberta’s royalty take will continue to languish.

By not charging reasonable royalties and not collecting those royalty rents on the non-renewable resources owned by Albertans the government is irretrievably squandering the birthright of future generations of Albertans. That is something Minister Morton says Conservatives don’t do.

Eliminate Flat Tax or Keep it & Put in a Sales Tax!
The other thing we could do is to eliminate the flat income tax and return to a progressive tax model. Alternatively we can retain the flat tax but institute a sales tax based on consumption and add a progressive tax element back into our system and raise much needed funds. This would bring in enough money to cover the deficits and still leave Alberta as the most tax competitive province overall.

Can we Look Our Kids in the Eye if we Don't Resolve the Problem Now?
It was way back in 1994-94 when our government consciousness caught up with the fiscal sentiments of Albertans and took on the challenge to eliminate the accumulated debt and stop deficit budgeting. One of the key motivations of the people of Alberta at the time was the unfairness debt and deficit was to future generations. Debt and deficits were seen as mortgaging the future of our children. When the task was accomplished Premier Klein said “we can look our kids in the eye again.”

Well we have the same shame now in looking future generations in the eye as we fail refuse or neglect to charge and collect responsible and reasonable royalty rents from our non-renewable resource energy sector. By failing to require and enforce restoration and reclamation practices for roads, wells sites, seismic lines and other disturbances inherent in the development of the energy sector we leave a negative legacy for our children to contend with. By not having adequate protection and enforcement of land, water and air standards we put an additional burden on future Albertans.

The 2010-11 Alberta Budget cycle has just started. The news is not good but the solutions are in the hands and within the power of Albertans to take on, control as resolve “adults.” It will take political will to accomplish the tasks but Albertans forced the political will on its politicians before - in 1993-94 over debt and deficit. Will Albertans once again take personal responsibility to resolve and adjust to the current fiscal realities and choose not to delay or defer them as a burden on future generations?